By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
May 20, 2013
“Americo-Liberians: The 17th Tribe of Liberia” is a two parts series. Part I will look at various sources such as the Bible, Greeks, Romans and Anglo-Saxon (English) cultures; and what Cultural Anthropologists say about tribe, before arriving at a working definition and all that encompasses Tribe.
One of my main reasons for writing this article is to make clear to those Liberians who are of the belief that any reference to Tribe – means uncivilized or something that is PRIMITIVE. Due to this belief, many Liberians – especially those from tribal backgrounds who were raised by Americo-Liberians or Congo families do not want to be identified with their native backgrounds (an egregious form of self-hatred).
Some of them even go as far, to denial that their tribal parents are not their biological parents. See my story: “Passing: A Classic Case of Shame and Tragedy,” published in the August 11, 2007 edition of theperspective.org.
Part II will focus on the practices of a tribe or the behaviors of most tribal people.
Moreover, if nothing else, this exercise is intended to bring some clarity to the confusion (state the confusion). Therefore, I ask that any challenge to this essay should be directed at the facts presented and not to me personally or groups that I represent or I am a member of.
For some time now, there has been this ongoing discourse at home and especially on the Liberian Listservs regarding tribalism and ethnicity; and there has been narrow usage and interpretation of both words. For example, an individual who supports another person from his/her tribe for whatever their reason may be is accused of being tribalistic. As a result of the fear for being labeled or accused of tribalism, many individuals avoid the discussion of “Tribalism” and “Ethnicity”.
I had completed this research July 2012. I intended to include it in one of my upcoming books; but I could not resist the urge to contribute to the current discourse on the question: “Is tribal loyalty or loyalty to a group in conflict with loyalty to the state or patriotic nationalism?” At the end of this article, this question will be answered. Furthermore, I am glad we are discussing Tribe or Tribalism or for that matter, other national issues on the Liberian Listservs.
Besides the occasional diatribes, lots of good discussions and recommendations have come from these various Listservs. However, we need to emulate the example of my late friend, the proud son of Pallipo, Tarty Teh. Teh epitomized what it meant to be a gentleman scholar. Never once did I see him trading insults with those who misunderstood and misinterpreted his writings/positions.
I remembered as a youth growing up in the unpaved area of Clay Street, Monrovia, those of us who were African-Liberians (Klao/Kru, Bassa, Kpelle, etc.), were referred to by Americo-Liberians or Congo (pronounced ‘Kongor’) as Native or Country people. Such reference was intended to degrade us as being backward and uncivilized. This practice started with the so-called founding of the Commonwealth of Liberia.
During this period, the Settlers did not recognize the indigenous people as member of the Commonwealth – the very people who gave them the land upon which they settled. Instead, they referred to them derisively as aborigines, natives, tribal people, and referred to themselves as Americo-Liberians. This is what I referred to in my article: “A Cultural Legacy of False Starts,” published in ThePerspective.org on November 16, 2000.
As a point of fact, the July 16, 1847 Declaration of Independence drafted by the Representatives of the People of the Commonwealth of Liberia excluded the natives. It reads: We, the people of the Republic of Liberia, were originally inhabitants of the United States of North America.
In some parts of that country we were debarred by law from all rights and privileges of man – in other parts, public sentiment, more powerful than law, frowned us down. We were excluded from all participation in the government. We were taxed without our consent. We were compelled to contribute to the resources of a country which gave us no protection.
We were made a separate and distinct class, and against us every avenue of improvement was effectively closed. Strangers from other lands, of a color different from ours, were preferred before us. We uttered our complaints, but they were unattended to, or only met by alleging the peculiar institutions of the country.
All hope of a favorable change in our country was thus wholly extinguished in our bosoms, and we looked with anxiety for some asylum from the deep degradation. The western coast of Africa was the place selected by American benevolence and philanthropy for our future home (emphasis is mine).
Removed beyond those influences which oppressed us in our native land, it was hoped we would be enabled to enjoy those rights and privileges and exercise and improve those faculties which the God of nature has given us in common with the rest of mankind. Under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, we established ourselves here, on land, acquired by purchase [questionable] from the lords of the soil…
In addition, the Motto the Settlers adopted reads: “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.” It is the distinction established in Settlers’ Constitution and Motto that gave birth to our present grave problem, for which the discussion regarding “Tribalism” and “Ethnicity” is being debated today.
In order to bring clarity to the discussion, we need to establish working definitions for both Tribe and Ethnic groups; in doing so, we will be able to prove if Americo-Liberians can be considered a Tribe.
Tribe from a Biblical Perspective
First, let’s look at the Biblical definition. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Tribe of Ephraim was one of the Tribes of Israel. The Tribe of Manasseh together with Ephraim also formed the House of Joseph. The descendants of Joseph formed two of the tribes of Israel, whereas each of the other sons of Jacob founded only one tribe.
Thus, there were thirteen tribes; but the number twelve was preserved, while Levi was excluded and Ephraim and Manasseh are mentioned separately. (See Num 1:32-34; Josh 17:14, 17; Chr 7:20) After the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, who himself was a descendent of Ephraim (1 Chronicles 7:20-27) in c. 1200 BCE, until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel in c. 1050 BC, the Tribe of Ephraim was a part of a loose confederation of Israelite tribes.
At that time, no central government existed, but in times of crisis the people were led by ad hoc leaders known as Judges. With the growth of the threat from Philistine incursions, the Israelite tribes decided to form a strong centralized monarchy to meet the challenge, and the Tribe of Ephraim joined the new kingdom with Saul as the first king.
After the death of Saul, all the tribes other than Judah remained loyal to the House of Saul, but after the death of Isa-bosheth, Saul’s son and successor to the throne of Israel, the Tribe of Ephraim joined the other northern Israelite tribes in making David, who was then the king of Judah, king of a re-united Kingdom of Israel.
The point here is, during Biblical time, a tribe could be named after the leader; like the Tribe of Ephraim, an individual. (Easton’s Bible Dictionary (formerly known as the Illustrated Bible Dictionary) by Matthew George Easton, M.A., D.D. published in 1897)
The Greeks and the Romans’ Definition of Tribe
The Greeks and the Romans defined Tribe as, any group of political and demographic subdivisions of the population. In Greece the groups divided into tribes were distinct by location, dialect, and tradition, and they included the Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, and Aetolians. In Attica, Cleisthenes replaced the 4 Ionian tribes with 10 new tribes, each of which was named after a local hero; these came to develop political and civic functions, including the election of magistrates.
The demes developed out of the tribal system. In Rome the tribes formed the 3 (later 4, and still later 35) original divisions of Roman citizens. These were the basis of military levies, property tax, census taking, and voting units in political assemblies. (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Tribe)
Cultural anthropologists defined Tribe as any of a variety of social units, including some defined by unilineal. (Unilineality is a system of determining descent groups in which one belongs to one’s father or mother’s lineage or both). The term is usually apply to a unit of social organization that is culturally homogeneous and consists of multiple kinship groups—such as the family, lineage, or clan.
But what unites societies of such diverse scales as being “tribal” is their own internal sense of “being a single people.” Throughout most of the history of modern cultural anthropology, the terms tribe and primitive were usually linked; however, in recent years primitive has been avoided by most anthropologists because it appears to carry with it an unintended judgment of the moral or technological development of a people. (IBID)
The Romans defined Tribe as a social group bound by common ancestry and ties of consanguinity (state of being related by blood or descended from a common ancestor) and affinity; a common language and territory; and characterized by a political and economic organization intermediate between small, family-based bands, and larger chiefdoms.
Some anthropologists believe that tribes develops when more stable and increased economic productivity, brought on by the domestication of plants and animals, allow more people to live together in a smaller area. A tribe may consist of several villages, which may be cross-cut by clans, age grade associations, and secret societies; each of these cross-cutting institutions may, at different times and in different ways, perform economic, political, legal, and religious functions.
Tribes are popularly believed to be close-knit and parochial, but some anthropologists now argue that they are flexibly defined communities of convenience. They have observed that there has been as much marriage between tribes as within, that members of many tribes may speak the same language and that members of any one tribe may speak different languages, and finally that all members of a given tribe rarely—if ever—unite in any important political or economic activity.
Anthropologists have noted that every known tribe has been in contact with states, and suggest that tribal institutions may form alliance with the greater state power, or as direct consequences of the activities of states. (IBID)
In ancient Greece, a country district or village was distinct from a polis (an independent city and its surrounding region under a unified government). Cleisthenes, an Athenian statesman and chief magistrate promoted the democratic reforms that took place from (508–507 BC). For example, the demes of Attica (the area around Athens) gained a voice in local and state government while the Attic demes had their own police powers, cults, and officials.
Males aged 18 years became registered members of the deme. Members decided deme matters and kept property records for taxation. Each deme sent representatives to the Athenian boule (Deliberative council in the city-states of ancient Greece.
It existed in almost all constitutional city-states, especially from the late 6th century BC in proportion to its size. The term continued to be applied to local districts in Hellenistic and Roman times. Democracy as we know today derived out of Deme (Greek, Demos). (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Tribe)
The English: A brief history of the tribes of England:
The Ancient Britons
There are no written records from this time so historians have built up a picture using archeological and linguistic evidence. From the Neolithic to the British Isles, were settled by mainly Germanic, Gaulish and Iberian tribes migrating from mainland Europe. Today these people are collectively known as the Celts or Britons.
The oldest name for Great Britain is Albion. After the Romans invaded in 43AD over the next four centuries they established the province of Britania. There were been some integration by 410AD.
The Anglo Saxons
What is known today as England was settled from the 5th Century by Germanic and Nordic tribes from Angeln, Jutland and Saxony. Although they fought battles, they however integrated with the indigenous Celts and Britons; and in the 9th Century formed a unified England. (http://www.anglosaxon.org.uk/England).
Now, this brings us to Ethnic or “Ethnicity”.
ETHNIC: Ethnic is defined as:
- Relating to, or characteristic of a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage;
- Being a member of a particular ethnic group, especially belonging to a national group by heritage or culture but residing outside its national boundaries: a classic example is the ethnic Hungarians living in northern Serbia. (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Tribe)
In addition, the following disciplines, Social Science/Anthropology & Ethnology defined ethnic as a member of a particular group, especially “one who maintains the language or customs of the group; or an individual of a human group having racial, religious, linguistic, and certain other traits in common.” Ethnicity is what ties the individual to his/her race or culture. It has a strong influence in the things one does.
Moreover, an ethnic group is a group of people who share a common characteristic that makes them unique to every other group. Example of an ethnic group is a group that would share the same culture or race. (IBID), (http://answers.ask.com/Society/)
The Modus Operandi of Settlers or Tribes in History
This brings us to the settlers or European tribes’ modus operandi in dealing with those who are different from them – be it their skin color, culture, religion or language. Let cite few examples here.
For example, the Khoi initially came into contact with European explorers and merchants in approximately AD 1500. The ongoing encounters were often violent. Local population dropped when the Khoi were exposed to smallpox by Europeans.
Active warfare between the groups flared when the Dutch East India Company enclosed traditional grazing land for farms. Over the following century the Khoi were steadily driven off their land, which effectively ended traditional Khoikhoi life.
Khoikhoi social organization was profoundly damaged and, in the end, destroyed by European colonial expansion and land seizure from the late 17th century onwards. As social structures broke down, some Khoikhoi people settled on farms and became bondsmen or farm workers; others were incorporated into existing clan and family groups of the Xhosa people.
Early European settlers sometimes intermarried with the indigenous KhoiKhoi, producing a sizable mixed population known at the time as “Basters”. Such reference is degrading to this population. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki)
The Australian Aborigines
The Australian Aborigines also referred to as Aboriginal people, are people whose ancestors were indigenous to the Australian continent — that is, to mainland Australia or to the island of Tasmania before British colonization of the continent began in 1788.
The category “Aboriginal Australians” was coined by the British after they began colonizing Australia in 1788; they collectively refer to all peoples they found already inhabiting the continent, and later to the descendants of any of those peoples. Until the 1980s, the sole legal and administrative criterion for inclusion in this category was race. In the era of colonial and post-colonial government, access to basic human rights depended upon your race.
If you were a “full blooded Aboriginal native … [or] any person apparently having an admixture of Aboriginal blood”, a half-caste being the “offspring of an Aboriginal mother and other than Aboriginal father” (but not of an Aboriginal father and other than Aboriginal mother), “quadroon”, or had a “strain” of Aboriginal blood you were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.
The Americo-Liberians, their sub-ethnic group – the Congos, their Wards and the English Anglo-Saxon tribe of Great Britain have similar modus operandi. For example, in 1626 Peter Minuit (an individual) bought Manhattan Island from the local Canarsie Indians for a load of bread and what today would equal about $24.00! (http://www.chacha.com)
According to the History of the Settlers from North America, they bought “Cape Montserrado” for goods valued at approximately $300.00. This writing of history, reminds me of the African proverb that says: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” From January 1820, the American Colonization Society (ACS) sent ships from New York to West Africa in search of a homeland for freed slaves.
The first one had 88 free blacks and three white ACS agents. After several attempts and hardships, ACS representatives in December 1821 succeeded in acquiring a 36-mile long strip of land – near what is Monrovia today – from indigenous ruler King Peter [what not the name he calls himself?] in the region that is now Liberia. The area they acquired was Cape Mesurado.
After dwelling for some time on a piece of land at Cape Mesurado in present day Monrovia, which was freely given to the settlers by the local inhabitants as a temporary refuge, U.S. Naval Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton (also referred to as Captain in the Settlers’ History book) and Colonial Agent Eli Ayres of the ACS masterminded confiscation of the land under the so-called Treaty of Mesurado drafted by them and imposed on native leaders described as Kings Peter, George, Zoda, Long Peter.
Even the merchandise promised in exchange for the land was not fully delivered, and so in January 1822, King George and others protested to authorities in Sierra Leone about the unfairness of the land transaction. But the protest was too late as hostilities followed (Dunn & Holsoe, Historical Dictionary of Liberia, p. 173). Also, what ensured was full confiscation of Cape Mesurado and adjacent areas by the settlers and their ACS agents.
As a common practice, ruling elites in Liberia and South Africa for example, imposed their cultural hegemony on the indigenous inhabitants in these countries with total disregard for the culture and way of life of the people whose land they occupied. Prominent among these violations is the acquisition of land through “false” purchase, confiscation, and downright robbery.
A classic example of this practice was alluded to by Frank Sherman (2011) in his recent book: Liberia: The Land, Its People, History and Culture. Sherman wrote: The religious practices, social customs and cultural standards of Americo-Liberians also had their roots in the antebellum American South.
And they profoundly influenced and shaped the perceptions and attitudes of Americo-Liberians toward the natives. The indigenous people, their cultures and lifestyles, were seen as the very antithesis of what civilisation was all about and whose embodiment was the Americo-Liberian community in the midst of a “backward” and “primitive” people.
Stay tune for Part II: This part will focus on the practices of a tribe or the behavior of most tribal people.
SOURCES Nyanseor, Siahyonkron. “A Cultural Legacy of False Starts,” published in ThePerspective, November 16, 2000. Nyanseor, Siahyonkron. “Unraveling Our Past to Make Necessary Corrections,” published in The Perspective.org, February 28, 2001.
Nyanseor, Siahyonkron. “The Myth of Our Once ‘Peaceful Country’”, published in ThePerspective.org, June 23, 2003. The Declaration of Independence in the July 16, 1847 Constitution of Commonwealth of Liberia.Easton, M.A., D.D., Matthew George. (1897) Easton’s Bible Dictionary (formerly known as the Illustrated Bible Dictionary) New York: Easton. Taryor, Nya Kwiawon, Impact of the African Tradition on African Christianity.
Edition, reprint. Publisher, Strugglers’ Community Press, 1984. Dunn, Elwood D., and Svend E. Holsoe, eds. Historical Dictionary of Liberia. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985 Sherman, Frank (January 10, 2011). Liberia: The Land, Its People, History and Culture. New York: New Africa Press.
A brief history of the tribes of England: (http://www.anglosaxon.org.uk/England) The Free Dictionary Com http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Tribe Ask Com http://answers.ask.com/Society/ Liberian Past and Present: http://www.liberiapastandpresent.org/index.html Teh, http://blojlu.wordpress.com
Discourses: The Liberian Listservs Liberia: The Land, Its People, History and Culture: https://site.google.com/siteintercontinentalbookcentre/liberia-the-land-its-people-history-and-culture Tarty’s Letter to A. Romeo Horton, Chairman, Liberian Elections Support Group, Inc. (LESGO), dated September 15, 1992 and Horton’s Reply
ADDITIONAL SOURCES Sundiata, I. K. Black Scandal: America and the Liberian Labor Crisis, 1929–36. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1980. Wiley, Bell, ed. Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia 1833-1869. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.
Shick, Tom. Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth-century Liberia. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Staudenraus, P.J. (1980) [Columbia University Press, 1961]. The African Colonization Movement, 1816 – 1865. New York: Octagon Books.
Wreh, Tuan. (1976) [C. Hurst & Company] The Love of Liberty: The Rule of President William V. S. Tubman in Liberia, 1944 – 1971. Garrison, William Lloyd. Thoughts on African Colonization. Boston, 1832. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968. Johnson, Charles S. Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1987. Mehlinger, Louis R. “The Attitude of the Free Negro Toward African
Colonization” Not a Slave! Free People of Color in Antebellum America, 1790-1860, ed. In Lacy Shaw New York: American Heritage Custom Publishing Group, 1995. Smith, James Wesley. Sojourners in Search of Freedom: The Settlement of Liberia by Black Americans. Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1987.
About the Author: Siahyonkron Nyanseor is a native of Liberia. He is a poet, a playwright, a journalist, a cultural and political activist and was ordained on May 19, 2012 as a Minister of the Gospel. Mr. Nyanseor is a founding member of the Union of Liberian Association in the Americas (ULAA), Inc. as well as the organization’s eleventh President and its historian.
He is the current Acting Chair of ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc.; he is the publisher of the 1st Liberian Online Internet Newsmagazine – ThePerspective.org; Senior Advisor to TheVoiceofLiberia Online News website.
He is a founding member and current Treasurer of the Liberian History, Education, and Development (LIHEDE), Inc., an organization dedicated in promoting indigenous Liberian history and the advancement of human and civil rights for Liberians.
In addition, Mr. Nyanseor is the Organizing Coordinator of the Tarty Teh’s Memorial Foundation, which the ‘Friends of Tarty Teh’ is in discussion with the Teh Family to establish the Tarty Teh’s Pallipo Foundation. One of the foundation’s goals will be to publish Teh’s body of work. Mr. Nyanseor can be contacted at: Siah1947@gmail.com.